When we call children sensitive, what is it that we really mean? Many of us use the word sensitive to describe a person whose emotional reactions are stronger than the average person’s. Sadly, this word can get in the way of understanding an important truth about why your child has the emotional reactions they do.
Some parents who view their children as sensitive treat them like they are fragile or incapable of being resilient. Being treated this way can lead a child to believe that is really who they are. However, when we understand the role that meaning plays in our children’s emotional reactions, we can support their resilience without invalidating their feelings.
After spending the past few years directing a program for emotionally disturbed children, I have learned that the meaning a child (or adult) creates to make sense out of an experience is the most important factor in determining their emotional reaction. If two children are told they are not allowed to play video games during dinner, one might believe they are being punished by an unloving parent. The other child might believe this is just the rule of their family and it does not mean any kind of rejection. Clearly, the first child is going to have a strong negative emotional reaction and the second won’t. The difference is not that one is more fragile, but that they interpreted their parents differently.
Once we realize that what we say isn’t always what the other person hears, communication becomes much easier. The first child heard a powerful rejection and their emotional response was completely appropriate to what they thought was happening. The parent does not challenge the child’s emotional response by saying they shouldn’t be upset. Instead, they inquire about the meaning and challenge that. It can look like this:
Parent: “Put away that game until after dinner.”
Child: “NO!! You never let me have fun. (crying)”
P: “Do you think I don’t care about whether you have fun?”
C: “Of course you don’t or you would let me play.”
P: “I really want you to understand that you having fun is important to me. The reason I’m saying no games is that I want us to enjoy dinner together and feel connected. I’m not sure I’m saying it clearly, so please let me know what you heard me say.”
C: “You want us to feel connected.”
P: “Yes, and I also said that you having fun is important to me.”
C: “OK. I get it.”
By challenging the meaning, it is possible to help a child cope better emotionally without telling them their feelings are invalid.
[Guest post by Tim Desmond, LMFT. Tim is a therapist in private practice in Oakland, CA and the director of a mental health day treatment program for children. He offers phone counseling through his website. Follow him at twitter.com/timdesmond